Tunisian student tackles power and energy in Durango

Exchange student hopes to apply her studies in electricity at home

Rihab Ammar saw snow for the first time this winter. She took a 63-hour bus ride from Durango to the East Coast. And she went camping with friends in Utah.

The Fort Lewis College exchange student is doing a lot of things for the first time, including learning electrical engineering with plans of applying her knowledge in her hometown of Gassa, Tunisia, a relatively small country at the northern tip of Africa.

“I want to try and transfer the knowledge I get here back there,” she said. “Ideas like the smart grid and ways to reduce consumption – even the basic things when it comes to energy fields.”

Ammar, 23, is what one might call wicked smart. She is fluent in four languages – Arabic, French, English and Spanish – and has among the best test scores in her country. She is the recipient of a full scholarship to attend Fort Lewis College this year. She arrived in August and plans to leave late April, at the end of the school year.

She has plans to get married in July, and will then move to Japan with her new husband, where they will live for two years. While in Japan, Ammar will learn to speak German in anticipation of moving to Germany, where she will seek a master’s degree with a focus on renewable energies.

As part of her scholarship requirements, Ammar must have an internship in her academic field, so she’s working about three days a week at La Plata Electric Association, crunching data and working on projects related to renewable energy.

Like many interns, Ammar arrived with high ideals in her field of study and has had to learn the challenges of getting from Point A to Point B, said Dan Harms, manager of rates, technology and energy policy at LPEA.

“We’d all love to be 100 percent green, but here’s the challenges in doing so,” he said.

He added: “She’s full of excitement and wants to learn and bring back information on energy efficiencies and renewables and is just a sponge for information and wants to learn it all. She’s definitely up to any challenge we give her – a very smart young girl.”

In America, students are generally told they can pursue any career path, whether it’s construction worker, accountant or technical engineer. In Tunisia, students take national exams as they advance through their studies. Results from those exams determine what academic tracks will be made available to students. For Ammar, who scored in the top 1 percent, most doors were open. “I had some really good grades and scores, so I was able to make it to almost everything,” she said.

Tunisia, with plenty of ocean breeze and Mediterranean sunshine, has good potential for renewable energy, and the country seems committed to enhancing its green power during the next 20 years. What’s more, the country is a leading producer of a certain type of silicon used in the production of solar panels, so Ammar sees a future in which she can foster development of solar panels and put them to use in her own country.

When she’s not studying, Ammar is soaking up American culture.

During the winter break, she hopped on a bus to Washington, D.C. – a 63 hour trip that allowed her to see the countryside and experience its size.

“I am grateful that I did it,” she said. “I cannot believe myself that I did it, but I did it. It was kind of tiresome at some point.”

She went camping with friends in Utah, went to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, visited North Dakota and last week took a day trip to Vallecito. In coming weeks, she plans to go skiing at Purgatory Resort.

Tunisia has an average high of 60 degrees and low of 43 degrees during the winter. She used to think that was cold – until coming to Durango. Snow was a lovely sight, at first, she said, but she has grown tired of it – possibly after slipping and falling on ice.

“I loved it at some point, and then I hated it at some point,” she said.

She has a younger brother in high school who is interested in mechanics, mathematics and engineering, and a younger sister who hasn’t yet entered high school.

Her mother is a fifth-grade French teacher and her father is a nurse.

“I think they are the reason behind my success,” she said.

Laurie Williams, professor of physics and engineering at Fort Lewis College, said Ammar is the type of student professors wish they had every semester – polite, hard-working, earnest and mature enough to take ownership of her education.

“She always has her head scarf, but nobody seems to treat her any differently,” Williams said. “From my perspective, she has really fit in well.”

Tunisia had its own revolution in 2010 and is where the Arab Spring originated, a 2011 democratic uprising that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Since then, the country has adopted a new constitution that guarantees the rights of women, among other human rights.

Andy Burns, director of admissions at the college, said the IREX Tunisia Undergraduate Scholarship Program helps enhance students’ academic studies while giving them an understanding of American culture and values.

“The goal behind the program is to create better collaboration and mutual understanding and respect between the two countries, but then to use the additional skills and knowledge … to encourage economic development and foster democratic ideals in the country,” Burns said.

It is a cost-sharing program between the U.S. Department of State and Fort Lewis College. This is the first year Fort Lewis has participated.

“It’s been a positive experience for us so far,” Burns said. “We have put in a bid to be a host again next year.”

He described Ammar as polite, enthusiastic, curious and open to new ideas and experiences.

“I’ve never not seen a smile on her face,” he said. “She’s always trying to understand how to make the most of new opportunities and new experiences.”

Durango Herald

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